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The Hidden Life of Sharing

The sharing economy grows and grows, but the richest value in sharing is lost. It's not what we send out but what we do together that makes sharing meaningful.

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Much has been written about “the sharing economy” but, respectfully, I think a lot of the writing has got it all wrong. Or, maybe those writers haven’t gotten it wrong as much as they’ve ignored an important aspect of sharing.

Sharing is more than forwarding something along, more than shouting “hey, look at me”, more than liking.

Sharing was the cornerstone of Web 2.0. I realize that I’m going way back into ancient history—to the year 2007—but it was sharing that caused the great transformation in digital media. Web 2.0 made it easier for us to share what we found on our web journeys. Web 2.0 heroes like Twitter and Facebook enabled us to interact with our digital brethren. They gave us the power to say, “Hey, bro. Check out this video.”

Web 2.0 was a significant milestone because it marked the convergence of backend technologies that empowered the browser (like asynchronous javascript), design-driven user interfaces, and an appeal to the consumer’s natural inclination to engage with friends and point a finger at things they think are cool.

A lot has happened in 10 years, and the advances that seemed groundbreaking when Web 2.0 took off now seem ordinary. But the emphasis on sharing remains. Marketers want consumers to share. Content creators program for share-ability and like-ability and so many abilities I’ve now lost track. It’s become such a beast that even ordinary internet users—everyday folks with an iPhone and an Instagram account—edit, refine and evaluate their posts based on their potential to be shared.

That’s all fine and well, but we’re missing the true value of sharing. So much of what’s discussed and written about sharing is transactional. It views sharing as an act of transmission: I put it out there and now I hope that others re-broadcast and share with their followers. Even when it’s not so self-serving, the idea of sharing is increasingly connected to the idea of conversation. Sharing = digital discussions. I post a photo. You comment with a heart emoji. We both like the stream. Maybe we keep commenting and we tag others and invite them to our discussion.

These analogs for sharing have merit. They describe one aspect of our behavior. But they fail to acknowledge the root cause of sharing in the first place. Before the internet, sharing was connected to our drive to partake with others. I have this whole thing and I want to share it with you. The two of us have less than a whole yet the experience we enjoy … sharing … makes the whole feel greater than the sum of its parts. Remember what your preschool teacher taught you: sharing is caring.

It turns out that sharing really does add value. Shared experiences frequently eclipse the value of experiences we encounter alone. In Brand Real I provided the example of movies—specifically comedies. Most comedies are funnier with others. Why? There’s something contagious about laughter. That’s why television producers have piped laugh tracks onto sitcoms for decades.

Yet the value of sharing is more than an environmental influence. That is to say, it’s not just other people’s laughter that makes us enjoy an experience more. A few years ago I was doing a survey for a client and decided to throw in a question about movie-going. It was tangentially related to the client, but that didn’t matter. When I do online surveys I always add questions that have remote or zero relevance to the subject we’re studying. It’s my way of keeping the respondent on their toes and engaged. I like to have fun with my subjects—ask them questions about things they don’t often get asked. Consider the fact that most surveys are laden with questions about “satisfaction” and “recommendation” and all kinds of other stuff no one remembers or cares about. So, I throw in questions about things we do care about, things we don’t always think about, and things we enjoy rating and pining over. Call it the BuzzFeed element of my survey designs.

In this survey, I asked respondents if they ever went to the movies by themselves. Less than a third said they did. I had a follow-up question. I asked why. The responses were interesting. The biggest response was that going alone was less enjoyable. The second biggest response was that it would be embarrassing.

Let’s break these top-two responses down. Why is movie-going more enjoyable with a companion? According to social custom (although many disregard) you watch a movie in a constrained state of interaction. Conversing with your companion is frowned upon. Except for the occasional bout of making out with a date, for 120 minutes most of us sit next to our movie mate silently, taking the content in alone together. How does this shared passiveness make movie-going more enjoyable?

Second, why is it stigmatic to go to a movie alone? This question has always fascinated me because I’m one of the rare third that has no problem at all going to a theatre and watching a movie by myself. But to a lot of people, this is uncomfortable. It’s overly-indulgent. Or, they feel like losers because they don’t have anyone to go with them.

I could write several articles trying to answer both questions, but that’s not the point of this article. The point of this article is to say that people do feel that way and sharing the experience with others satisfies these thoughts and feelings. The power of sharing, in this context, may even drive the box office of movies. A recent study in the Journal of Marketing Research found that, when the consumer desire to engage in a shared experience was factored in, the boom and bust pattern of box office returns was better defined than in any previous model explored to date. The researchers theorized about why big blockbuster movies have massive opening weekends followed by rapid declines, while “sleeper” movies open more modestly and climb over time. The answer was shared experience. When moviegoers craved time with one another, the value of a novel new opening drove ticket sales—something new we can both experience together. But two to three-weeks in, the probability that one of the sharing party had seen the movie increased, so the demand for that picture subsided, thereby explaining the precipitous decline in overall box office.

Novelty is only one reason people purchase to share. The other is outright anxiety. This explains why the average ticket for a horror movie is closer to two than one. Come with me to this scary movie. I can grab your arm when I’m terrified. This is also true for novel experiences—experiences the consumer doesn’t quite understand. Having a companion lessens the ambiguity by giving one another a common ground to test and explore and evaluate.

Finally, sharing can often add value through validation. Maybe you found a restaurant you like. Inviting a friend to join you at that restaurant provides an opportunity to validate your taste (assuming they are as impressed as you). This aspect is nuanced and particularly interesting to me. This need for validation can take so many forms. Sometimes it manifests because the consumer feels that the experience might be perceived by a mainstream audience as “weird.” Someone who wants to go to a plushie party might worry that their interest ostracizes them from conventional opinion. By having someone else accompany them they feel less ostracized. This can be true for someone who is truly enthralled with the subject as someone who just seeks variety and wants to “try it out.”

I used an extreme example here but the need for sharing in uncertain environments extends to very mainstream experiences. As the fitness industry continue to grow through classroom programs consumers are feeling an increased desire for friend or known companion to join them on their workout. The anxiety being satisfied here is the crunch of exercise. It scares a lot of people. Doing it with someone else mitigates the fear. In fact, many smart fitness purveyors now openly acknowledge this barrier and invite the entire class to “band together” and “ride as a pack.”

The validation aspect can also have a reinforcement role. Maybe we discover a band that we love. When they’re back in town, we invite a few friends to go with us for the concert. If everyone has a good time, we feel validated. The music that we love others seem to love, too. That makes us feel justified in our taste.

There’s one more aspect to the validation dimension of sharing … and it’s a big one. A majority of the experiences that we want to share are inherently hedonistic. They are tied to pleasure, indulgence, wanton enjoyment. Few of us expect company when we have to mow the lawn, but we know someone will join us when we have that beer afterward. The step beyond is the experience that maybe we feel just a little bit guilty for doing. Come shopping with me. Let’s get hammered. Let’s show some skin. Shared consumption makes our individual enjoyment better.

If you’re a marketer, please do not use this post as a justification for a flawed approach to shared experience. You might read this and think, “let’s show people how much fun my product is when shared with others.” Most of these persuasion attempts fail. They are too situational. They rely upon a consumer to remember your message in that rare occurrence when they ask themselves, “what would be fun to do together?” Few consumers explicitly think this way.

Instead, many consumers desire to see a movie but worry that they don’t have someone to go with. Others discovered something on their own that they desperately want to share. Still others want to experiment but they don’t want to risk it alone. Each of these desires is deep-seated. They fester and drive behavior in irrational ways. And the social experiences they choose to mitigate such desires can gain enormous feelings of validation, satisfaction, and enjoyment. Your job is to recognize the underlying feeling and tailor your experience accordingly. Give a discount for parties of two or more. Encourage hedonistic pleasure in groups. Meanwhile, be aware of the subconscious signals that your product or service may send to the solo consumer. Restaurants with “community tables” and “family style” portions may inadvertently discourage someone who feels like a loser for dining alone.

It has been said that humans are fundamentally social animals. While in no way unique to our species, sharing is definitely a central motivator for much of our behavior. It’s time to think of sharing as more than an outcome. Sharing represents a core source of enjoyment for much of what we do.


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